The NUS said it would be encouraging tens of thousands of students to boycott seminars and lectures on 14 March and protest on campus against hidden course fees and the “privatisation of higher education”.
The protest is expected to be the most significant student action since the winter of 2010 when, in a series of demonstrations against the trebling of university fees, Conservative party headquarters were ransacked, riot police clashed with students in Parliament Square and 393 arrests were made in London alone.
A separate student campaigning group, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), is organising occupations and town centre marches for the same week.
NUS president Liam Burns said that although the government last month formally dropped its higher education bill, the union wanted to mobilise students against what it feared would be a back-door privatisation.
“The debate around the reforms that David Willetts wants to put in place are so opaque and so technocratic to the general public that no one is questioning them,” Burns said.
A circular sent to NUS members said the national walkout would be part of a week of action “to demonstrate to VC’s [vice-chancellors] and principals … that students will not stand by and let the coalition government press ahead with its destructive policies to sell off and privatise our universities and colleges”.
Burns said there were growing problems around what he called hidden course fees, where students had to pay extra for printing, lab coats, textiles and field trips, even as fees were rising.
The extra charges, he said, were “certainly not transparent, and it is becoming very hard to justify why students are having to bear that cost … when fees are £9,000″.
There was wider anger among young people, added Burns. “There are over a million young people unemployed, there’s the constant narrative that we’re benefit scroungers. All these things are gathering up and at some point people are going to realise that there is an attack on a generation going on here. You can’t keep hammering young people like this.”
His comments came as a report published by the thinktank IPPR showed 44% of young people on median or below average incomes thought their lives would be worse than those of their parents. The online poll, conducted by Yougov, found that 30% of 22- to 29-year-olds had no savings, while only 19% were debt free, and around 75% of all working young people had no pension provision.
Michael Chessum from NCAFC said it would be organising a “flurry” of actions including campus occupations and town centre demonstrations. “We’re talking about big occupations taking place and big demos taking place,” he said. “If NUS really pushes students’ unions to do it, and we’ll be pushing activists and unions to do it, we could have massive turn-outs.”